The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

From My Commonplace Book, No. 4

George Orwell on World War I


[Earlier posts in this series: No. 1 / No. 2 / No. 3 ]

From George Orwell's novel "Coming Up for Air" (published in 1939):

It really was unspeakably meaningless, that time in 1918. Here I was, sitting beside the stove in an Army hut, reading novels, and a few hundred miles away in France the guns were roaring and droves of wretched children, wetting their bags with fright, were being driven into the machine-gun barrage like you'd shoot small coke into a furnace. I was one of the lucky ones. The higher-ups had taken their eye off me, and here I was in a snug little bolt-hole, drawing pay for a job  that didn't exist. At times I got into a panic and made sure they'd remember about me and dig me out, but it never happened. The official forms, on gritty grey paper, came in once a month, and I filled them up and sent them back, and more forms came in, and I filled them up and sent them back, and so it went on. The whole thing had about as much sense in it as a lunatic's dream. The effect of all this, plus the books I was reading, was to leave me with a feeling of disbelief in everything.

I wasn't the only one. The war was full of loose ends and forgotten corners…. Nobody believed the atrocity stories and the 'gallant little Belgium' stuff any longer. The soldiers thought the Germans were good fellows and hated the French like poison. Every junior officer looked on the General Staff as mental defectives. A sort of wave of disbelief was moving across England, and it even got as far as Twelve Mile Dump. It would be an exaggeration to say that the war turned people into highbrows, but it did turn them into nihilists for the time being. People who in a normal way would have gone through life with about as much tendency to think for themselves as a suet pudding were turned into Bolshies just by the war. What should I be now if it hadn't been for the war? I don't know, but something different from what I am. If the war didn't happen to kill you it was bound to start you thinking. After that unspeakable idiotic mess you couldn't go on regarding society as something eternal and unquestionable, like a pyramid. You knew it was just a balls-up.

That guy could really write (see his wonderful essays "Why I Write" and "Politics and the English Language" for some of his views on the process of writing**). I can't think of another writer in English who will be equally long-remembered and admired both for his fiction ("Animal Farm," "1984"—surely the most influential fiction of the 20th Century) and for his non-fiction ("Homage to Catalonia," "Down and Out in Paris and London," and the remarkable "Road to Wigan Pier"). The excerpt above is as good a snapshot capturing the stupidity, and the tragedy, of WWI as anything of comparable length that I've ever read.

**Aspiring writers might wish to contemplate Orwell's six rules for good prose:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

"Coming Up for Air" was Orwell's fourth published novel, the last to be published before "Animal Farm" and "1984." It is largely unknown and unread today, which is really a shame; told through the eyes of George Bowling, a down-and-out, middle-aged insurance salesman ('two kids and a house in the suburbs'), it's a beautifully crafted picture of Britain-between-the-wars—although neither the characters in the novel nor Orwell himself knew for certain that the '20s and '30s would soon be known as the "between the wars" decades.

And it has that great final sentence: "You knew it was just a balls-up." I don't think I have ever seen or heard that expression anywhere else; for all I know, Orwell may have invented it. But it could not be more perfect.